SUNSET SONG (Terence Davies, 2014)
Film Forum, 209 West Houston St., 212-727-8110
Lincoln Plaza Cinema, 1886 Broadway between 62nd & 63rd Sts., 212-757-2280
Opens Friday, May 13
A golden glow hovers over Sunset Song, Terence Davies’s lush adaptation of Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s seminal 1932 novel about family, land, war, and one young woman’s coming-of-age. Although it has the epic feel of a sweeping historical tale, the film takes place over just a few years in the second decade of the twentieth century, seen through the eyes of Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn). Her father, John (Peter Mullan), is a brutish farmer who runs his household with an iron fist. He lashes out, literally and figuratively, at his strapping son, Will (Jack Greenlees), who stands and takes it, choosing not to fight back, and treats his wife, Jean (Daniela Nardini), like a housekeeper and baby-making machine. In one of the most wrenching scenes of the film, John drags Jean, who doesn’t want to have any more children, upstairs to rape her in order to increase the size of their family; Jean’s terrifying screams from the bedroom evolve into shrill cries as she gives birth to twins. Following a horrific tragedy, Chris is forced to give up her education — she was studying to become a teacher — and work on the family farm. Upon meeting fellow farmer Ewan Tavendale (Kevin Guthrie), friendship turns into something more as Scotland gets involved in World War I.
Sunset Song is a slow-paced melodrama with moments of poetic beauty alternating with clichéd scenes and disjointed plot twists that come out of nowhere. It’s as if Davies, who has previously adapted John Kennedy Toole’s The Neon Bible, Terence Ratigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, and Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth in addition to making the award-winning Distant Voices, Still Lives, sliced and diced too much out of Gibbon’s story, the first book in the A Scots Quair trilogy. Supermodel Deyn (Clash of the Titans, Pusher) is gentle and touching as Chris, and she has a sweet chemistry with Guthrie (Sunshine on Leith, Restless) until things go awry. Cinematographer Michael McDonough evokes Nestor Almendros’s Oscar-winning work on Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven but never quite reaches the breathtaking level the film aspires to, much like Davies’s screenplay leaves us somewhat confused and wanting. But there’s still much to admire in this intimate feminist tale in which the land is a character unto itself, even if it’s not one of Davies’s finest, most magical hours. Sunset Song opens May 13 at Lincoln Plaza and Film Forum; Davies will be at Film Forum for a Q&A following the 6:45 show on opening night.